It’s beginning to look a lot like potential problems for rural septic systems this holiday season.
“It may not be such a happy new year for some households if we don’t get snow cover before temperatures really start to drop,” Dan Olson, public information officer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), said. “Snow helps to insulate septic systems and keep them from freezing. Fortunately, temperatures across the state have remained relatively mild so far, but that could change any time.”
The University of Minnesota Onsite Sewage Treatment Program provides tips for homeowners on how to prevent septic system freeze-ups and how to deal with them should they occur: • Place a layer of mulch eight to 12 inches thick over the pipes, tank and soil treatment system to provide extra insulation. This can be straw, leaves, hay or other loose material that will stay in place and not become compacted. This is particularly important for new systems that were installed so late in the year that vegetative cover could not be established. However, if the system is currently frozen, don’t add mulch now; it will delay thawing in the spring. • Let the grass or native vegetation growing over the tank and soil treatment area get a little taller in the late summer and fall to provide insulation and help hold snow. • Use water ― the warmer the better ― if you’re worried that your system is starting to freeze. Spread out your laundry schedule so you run one warm/hot load a day. Use the dishwasher and take hot baths. However, DO NOT leave water running all the time, as this will hydraulically overload the septic system. • Going away for an extended period? Plan accordingly. Have someone use warm water in your home regularly while you are gone or have your septic tank pumped out before you leave. If a shallow tank is left full for several winter months, the sewage will become very cold and can freeze. • Fix any leaky plumbing fixtures or appliances in your home. This will help prevent freezing problems and help your system perform better all year long. • If you have appliances that generate very low flows, such as high-efficiency furnaces, you can put heat tape in the pipe, and have someone come by and run warm water for a while you are on vacation. Alternatively, install a small condensate pump that holds and discharges two gallons per cycle. • Keep all vehicle, animal and human traffic off the system. This is a good rule to follow all year long as compacted snow and soils cause frost to go down deeper and faster. Pay special attention to the area between the house and the septic tank. • Make sure all risers; inspection pipes and manholes have covers. Sealing them and adding insulation is a good idea. Insulation may be added during construction particularly if the top of the septic tank is within two feet of the surface. • Keep an eye on your system. If any seeping or ponding occurs, contact a septic systems professional to help determine the cause and remedy. • Add more insulation to your system. This could include replacing pipe with insulated pipe, installing expanded foam panels over the septic tank, or adding more soil cover.
A common cause of freeze-ups are pipes that are not installed with the proper slant or that have settled, resulting in dips in the line. Where a dip or flat spot occurs, sewage can collect and freeze. Pump lines can develop a dip right next to or above the septic tank as a result of soil backfilled during tank installation settling.
If your septic system freezes, call a septic system professional. The MPCA website includes a search tool for finding certified professionals in your area. Search the Internet for "MPCA SSTS licensed business search." The pros have steamers and high-pressure jetters for thawing pipes.
Other methods used to fix a freezing problem include adding heat tape and tank heaters. Cameras can be sent down pipes to determine where freezing is occurring. If the soil treatment system is full of ice, or there is evidence of leaking, skip trying to thaw the lines leading to the treatment area as it cannot accept liquid until the area thaws in spring.
If it’s not feasible to correct a problem, the only option is using the septic tank as a holding tank until the system thaws naturally. Have a pumper empty the tank when it starts to fill up. In this situation, reduce water use by limiting the number of toilet flushes, taking short showers, and using the dishwasher at full capacity.
There are some things you should NEVER do to try to fix a frozen system: •DO NOT introduce antifreeze, salt or a septic system additive into the system. •DO NOT pump sewage onto the ground surface. •DO NOT start a fire over the system to attempt to thaw it out. •DO NOT run water continually to try to thaw the system. This can overload the system.
For information on keeping your system healthy all year, visit the University of Minnesota Onsite Sewage Treatment Program website.